After several years of developing and championing computer science (CS) curriculum at Rowland Hall and serving as a regional leader in CS education, alumnus, faculty member, and self-proclaimed lifelong learner Ben Smith '89 in March won the Utah Coalition for Education Technology's (UCET) Outstanding Teacher of the Year award.
The UCET award "recognizes and honors a teacher who has demonstrated outstanding achievement and leadership in implementing technology to improve education." Ben hasn't stopped at successfully implementing new classes such as the Joy of Computing and AP CS Principles: every year, he inspires more students to take such classes and pursue a career in CS or use it as a tool in other fields; he works with Rowland Hall colleagues to promote CS across grades and subjects; and he empowers educators outside the school by mentoring those new to CS.
"From professional conferences to social media and mentorship, Ben has worked tirelessly to help evangelize and promote CS education and his students and peers can attest to the amazing impact he has had on their learning," Director of Technology Integration Christian Waters wrote in Ben's award nomination. "With Ben's help, we are providing students with a foundation in CS education that they can apply to future academic studies and careers and that will help them shape the world."
In addition to forming an Upper School CS track, Ben started a Middle School course in which students explore the Internet of Things by creating projects using Arduino microcontrollers. He helped Rowland Hall secure a grant to design and equip the middle and upper school makerspace. "Through his guidance, the space became a fruitful laboratory for design, creation, and innovation," Christian wrote.
Ben mentors other teachers throughout the state and country in the Exploring Computer Science and Mobile CSP curiculula and constantly networks with other teachers at conferences and online, including UCET's weekly #UTedChat on Twitter. "My job is to create a community of adults who have the same passion for learning something," Ben said of his teaching-the-teacher endeavors.
The alumnus and parent of three students started teaching at Rowland Hall in 2001. He's led graphic design, art, photography, physics, and publications classes. In 2014, he earned a master's degree in Instructional Design and Education Technology (IDET) from the University of Utah, and that kindled his passion for CS—a curriculum that Rowland Hall needed.
"I had this sense of purpose and I just very slowly and carefully, with the help of a lot of people here, worked on building the program. So this award...it's organically come from the fact that I'm just following my passion," he said. "Now that I look back at it, I'm really proud of what I've done."
In recent years, Ben has helped Rowland Hall counteract the national trend of women being underrepresented in CS—read this April 2016 Fine Print story. And as noted in this February 2017 Fine Print story, since 2014, a total of six Rowland Hall students have won nine awards from the National Center for Women and Information Technology, in part due to Ben's guidance.
During the 2017–2018 school year, Ben will for the first time be teaching only CS-related classes, including a new AP Computer Science A class focused on the Java language. "I've always been a technology teacher," he said, "but now I'm digging a lot deeper and what I've found is students are really excited, and that's fun."
That excitement has permeated the school. For example, math teachers Adella Croft and Brian Birchler work with CS modeling and data visualization, respectively, in their classes; the school community participates in the annual Week of Code; one of Ben's CS classes worked with teacher Katie Schwab's second-grade class to develop apps to help the younger students understand place values; and the school recently held its first annual Maker Day. "It's amazing where we are," Ben said.
Ben said he initially got his interest in teaching from his mom, Judith Smith—a former Rowland Hall teacher and principal of the lower and upper schools—and from inspirational instructors he had during his own time as a Winged Lion, such as former physics teacher Dave Hall.
He's kept teaching in part because of what he called the enriching nature of learning new things and bringing them back to the classroom. Plus, there's the students. "I always knew it could be good for me because I enjoyed working with kids. That's the key," he said. "There's always a laugh. I always get humor in my day."
Ben does his part to bring the humor: on a wall in the corner of his classroom, he displays all of his yearbook portraits. They start off normal—headshots with smiles—because as Ben explained, "I didn't know what I was capable of." Now, the portraits show Mr. Smith absurdly photoshopped or costumed, including one in which he dons safari garb and uses binoculars to peer out from behind a plant. The gimmick started when he taught yearbook and had to help to set up picture day. "I started bringing a prop. It started simply and then it got a little weirder as time went on."
His endearing antics haven't scared away his own children, two of whom are rising ninth-grade twins. "I get a hug at lunch. That kind of thing is really encouraging," he said. "And I do think that they understand. For me, what's important is they see that I'm doing what I enjoy. That's my lesson for them—it doesn't matter what you become as long as you can find some joy in it."